“How old are you?”
A simple question to some but Saengsa hesitates. The ID card she pulls out of her pocket says she was born on the 1st January 2003 - but this is not her real birthday. In fact, she shares this birthday with many others like her born roughly around the same year. This makes her either 17 or 18, depending on who might be asking.
This is because her birth was never formally recognized. Saengsa is one of just under 500,000 people currently registered by the Thai Government as stateless. Eight years ago her parents fled Shan state in Myanmar, crossing into Thailand and settling in Mon Pin on the border. Unlike Thai citizens, the 13-digit number on her ID card starts with a zero.
To be stateless means that individuals are not considered citizens or nationals under the operation of the laws of any country. Stateless people in Thailand cannot vote, buy land, seek legal employment, or travel freely. When Saengsa graduates from school, she will not receive a diploma like her friends. With only informal economic opportunities available to them, many fall into financial hardship and lack human rights protection.
Stateless people can also be negatively perceived in Thai society. They can face high levels of prejudice, isolation, and discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity and legal status. Societies that do not recognize alternative cultural identities through inclusive policies can contribute towards these community tensions. This can have a big effect on stateless people’s sense of self-worth.
“Some call us the rubber people,” says Duangnet who is ethnic Karen. “It means they think we’re uncivilized.”
Unlike Saengsa, 23-year-old Duangnet was born in Thailand. But his community faces similar discrimination which can also impact their economic opportunities. There are many ethnic communities that call Thailand their home, broadly referred to as 'hill tribes' and totaling around 1 million people. Although Thailand has signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not officially recognize the existence of indigenous peoples in the country. Duangnet and his family are farmers of ancestral land in Tha Song Yang - but this land is not legally recognized as theirs. Duangnet says that hill tribe people are being portrayed as 'forest destroyers', used as a scapegoat, and blamed for high levels of air pollution across the country. Measures are now being taken to reclaim the land they have tilled for generations.
“We respect the land,” says Duangnet, “we don’t destroy it. We practice rotational farming; it’s our traditional way of life. When we burn the land after the harvest, we only burn a small amount to fertilize the soil. It is not comparable to the kind of burning you get from huge plantations. We only farm what we need to sustain ourselves, but we are still blamed.”
Changing harmful narratives and stereotypes about stateless and indigenous groups requires strategic thinking. With negativity and misinformation spreading more quickly through the online space than other forms of content, there is increasing demand from minority groups to learn how to compellingly communicate the issues they face to the masses.
“We want for everyone to acknowledge the existence of minority people without prejudice and not to see us as a threat,” says Duangnet. “That’s why it’s important for us to have a stronger voice.”
One approach is through the power of storytelling. Providing an intimate voice to pressing social issues can encourage empathy and compassion. Video content is particularly successful in this regard, building a relationship with content creators to make audiences feel personally invested in their lives.
Both Duangnet and Saengsa are participants of a series of UNDP and EU sponsored training workshops that are empowering minority community members with the skills to become better visual storytellers. These workshops, run by documentary producers Real Frame, encourage participants to think more tactically about how to address stereotypes and create engaging content that builds a better understanding around their identity, culture, and traditions. In addition to video storyboarding, building narrative arcs, and cinematography, participants are taught infographic design, photography, and writing skills.
For Saengsa, she hopes to reflect her learnings on her YouTube channel. She makes sweets and cakes, selling them to students at her school to help support her family’s modest income, and films while baking and interacting with her community.
“My dream is to become a business owner,” she says, pulling up photos of brightly decorated doughnuts on her phone. “One day, I want to run my own bakery store.”
The hope is that their campaigning efforts will also lead to a change in policies that will support them to achieve their ambitions. Without a shift in general perception and action, Saengsa’s dream may remain just that.
Learn more about UNDP Thailand here
Words: Mailee Osten-Tan
Photos: Mailee Osten-Tan, Duangnet Wongjamnian, Unsplash